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There’s an airline credit card out there for every type of traveler. To help you determine which card is right for you, we assembled our top picks.
- Why trust us? Finder’s credit card experts spend nearly 400 hours each week researching, comparing and writing about credit cards. Because of our extensive experience, we know what makes an airline credit cards a great addition to a type of consumer’s wallet. We want to share our knowledge with readers, helping them to pick the best card. We also follow strict editorial guidelines that keep our content unbiased and accurate.
Best airline credit cards
Best for airline rewards and transferable airline points: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Amex is consistently one of the best options for flight rewards. Though it comes with a $550 annual fee, you’ll earn stellar points on flights booked directly with airlines or through American Express Travel (see rates & fees).
- Rewards. Earn 5x points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and on prepaid hotels booked on American Express Travel. All other purchases earn 1x points.
- Welcome offer. Earn 60,000 rewards points after you make $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Travel perks. Get an annual airline fee credit, annual Uber credits, TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit, airport lounge access.
- Annual fee. You’ll pay $550 annually to use this card.
Best for United: United℠ Explorer Card
The United℠ Explorer Card offers more bang for your buck versus other mid-tier airline cards. Besides United perks — which include two United Club one-time passes each card year — you’ll also get a $100 credit for your TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application every four years.
- Signup bonus. Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you make $2,000 in purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.Plus, you’ll earn an additional 25,000 miles if you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months.
- Rewards. Earn 2x miles on United purchases, eligible hotel stays and restaurant spending. Earn 1x miles on all other purchases.
- Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit. Get up to $100 credit once every for years to cover for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.
- Earning restrictions. You may not earn your 2x miles when you purchase tickets through third party flights.
Best for Delta: Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American ExpressPlease note: All information about Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express has been collected independently by Finder and this card is no longer available through this site.
This card is tailored to the Delta loyalist because it comes with perks like a companion certificate, Delta SkyClub access and a miles boost to quickly reach Medallion status and earn reward flights.
- Welcome offer. Earn 40,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you make $3,000 in eligible purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Rewards. Earn 2x miles on Delta purchases and 1x miles on other eligible purchases.
- Delta SkyClub access. Get complimentary access to all Delta Sky Clubs, which otherwise costs $59 for a single visit. If you visit Delta Sky Clubs once a month, that’s $708 savings per year. In addition, get discounted access for $29 for up to two guests.
- Annual fee. You’ll pay $450 annually to use this card.
Best for Southwest: Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
This is the highest-priced Southwest credit card, but you can offset the annual fee with the yearly $75 travel credit and the 7,500 anniversary points you get each year (valued around $75). You can also find great value from the priority boarding and the generous welcome offer.
- Signup bonus. Earn 40,000 points after you make $1,000 in purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Rewards. Earn 2x points on Southwest Airlines purchases and spending with hotel and car rental partners. Earn 1x points on all other purchases.
- Southwest Airlines perks. Get four Upgraded Boarding passes each year, $75 annual travel credit and 7,500 bonus Southwest points each card anniversary.
- Annual fee. You’ll pay $149 annually to use this card.
Best for American Airlines: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
If you often fly American Airlines and you want a card with the highest value, consider this one. It offers a generous signup bonus, first checked bag free, preferred boarding and a $125 flight discount once you meet the spend criteria.
- Signup bonus. Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after you make $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Rewards. Earn 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, on gas and restaurant purchases. Earn 1x miles on all other purchases.
- American Airlines perks. Get first checked bag free and preferred boarding on American Airlines itineraries, plus 25% savings on eligible in-flight food and beverage purchases, and a $125 flight discount when you spend $20,000 or more in a cardmembership year.
- Taxes and fees. You’re on the hook for $30 per person in taxes and fees for your flight.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for airline rewards and transferable airline points
- United℠ Explorer Card: Best for United
- Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express: Best for Delta
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card: Best for Southwest
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®: Best for American Airlines
We looked at a variety of factors consumers might consider when selecting an airline rewards credit card, including the particular airline, earning rates, possible rewards, redemption values and additional perks or benefits associated with traveling. Those cards that stood out above the rest in a particular category, or served a specific niche, were chosen for our list.
What’s changed in 2019
With so many great airline credit cards to choose from, we decided to highlight the respective branded cards this year that provided the right mix of value versus the annual fee. Notable this year is the United℠ Explorer Card, which offers a terrific value versus other mid-tier airline cards.
Our pick for a card with airline credits
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American ExpressRead more
Compare airline credit cards
Many airlines offer cobranded credit cards with airline-specific perks. If you fly with different carriers, you might like a general travel card instead.
Compare cards by airline
How does an airline credit card work?
Airline credit cards function very similarly to rewards cards as they allow you to earn back miles or points on your eligible airline purchases. You can redeem these miles on airline tickets and other airline travel purchases.
Like other travel cards, airline credit cards come in two categories: general airline credit cards and cobranded credit cards. Where general airline cards can earn rewards and redeem on all airlines, cobranded cards are associated with a particular airline and earn bonus rewards on eligible airline purchases.
How to compare airline credit cards
Aside from the card’s APR, here are a few important features to compare when selecting an airline credit card:
- Airline. If you prefer flying a certain airline, look for a cobranded card that offers rewards specific to that company. Otherwise, a general travel card can help you earn on all airlines.
- Annual fee. Airline credit cards often feature annual fees to offset the various perks they offer.
- Signup bonus. Many airline cards offer a mileage signup bonus when you spend within the set requirements. This bonus can easily pay for a roundtrip flight, depending on your destination and class.
- Earning categories. Cobranded cards tend to earn the most miles on purchases associated with that airline. If you plan on using your card for day-to-day purchases, consider a card that earns miles on those purchases.
How to choose an airline credit card
With so many options, picking the right airline credit card for you can feel overwhelming. Here are a few factors to focus on to narrow your choices:
- Do you have a preferred airline? Airline credit cards come in two categories: general and cobranded. General cards can let you earn and redeem rewards on a variety of airlines. Cobranded cards, on the other hand, are limited to specific airlines when earning and redeeming. In exchange, cobranded cards offer even bigger earning rates than general airline cards, while offering additional perks associated with that airline.
- Do you want to pay an annual fee? Higher annual fees usually mean more perks on the card. Make sure the fee is worth the benefits, though. You can also consider an airline credit card without an annual fee, but it will come with fewer perks.
- Where do you do most of your spending? If you spend more on everyday purchases such as groceries and gas, look for a card that has a high earning rate on those categories. Remember that a cobranded airline card will earn the most on the affiliated brand, such as Southwest or Alaska Airlines.
- What perks do you want? While both general airline cards and cobranded airline cards come with perks, cobranded cards are typically tailored to the cobranded business. Examples of unique cobranded perks include free breakfast, upgraded rooms and companion passes. General perks can include statement credits,travel insurance and concierge service, which can help you set up additional benefits such as baggage delivery.
- How are the rates and fees? It’s not uncommon for airline cards to forgo foreign transaction fees, though it’s not a guarantee. You might also consider looking at the APR if you plan on carrying a balance on your airline card at some point.
You asked, we listened: Top 5 common questions
With so many airline credit cards to choose from, it’s only natural to have some questions. Here are the 5 most common questions we receive on the subject.
- How much are credit card airline miles worth? The ultimate value of an airline milecan vary greatly depending on the specific loyalty program and how you redeem your miles.
- Can I get an airline credit card with bad credit? Most airline credit cards require a good or better credit score. However, you can still use another type of credit card for your airline purchases.
- What kinds of airline cards are there? Airline credit cards come in two varieties: cobranded, which are released under the umbrella of a specific airline, and general, which can be used on any airline.
- Do I need a frequent flyer number to use an airline card? Only if you’re using a cobranded credit card. These cards need to be linked to your frequent flyer number to generate miles and provide rewards.
- What’s the difference between airline credit cards and travel credit cards? Airline credit cards generate miles and offer rewards specifically for flights. Travel credit cards offer general “points” that can be used on airlines as well as other travel options, such as hotels and cruises.
Read more about airline credit cards
Credit Cards Editor
Hi, I’m Sarah! Since I often visit family that lives 3,000 miles away, having a great airline card in my wallet is a must. I look for cards without annual fees and simple rewards structures to earn points for my airline of choice. I love comparing airline cards to find the best options. Here are some articles that might answer the questions you have.
Ask the experts
- Jennifer Burton
- Assistant Professor of Marketing
- Sykes College of Business
How are the number of miles required for a flight determined?
Frequent flier miles are a loyalty program perk offered by many airlines to influence a consumer’s decision to fly a particular airline over another so that they can accumulate enough points/miles to be awarded a free seat upgrade, free domestic flight or free international flight. The number of miles awarded for these perks is based on the average cost to the airline to deliver customers from point A to point B, as well as the perceived value of these perks to the average customer.
Airlines also sell the ability to accumulate miles to partner companies to award to their customer base as well. Typically, airlines will award free domestic tickets to passengers after accumulating approximately 15,000 airline miles and free international tickets to passengers after accumulating 40,000 airline miles.
Perceived value for these items typically runs between approximately 2.3 cents per mile for domestic flights and 3.8 cents per mile for international flights. However, what you get for these perks normally equates to 1 cents per mile for domestic flights and 2 cents per mile for international flights. So the airlines are still making money off these “perks.”
- Eric Van Steenburg
- Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Marketing
- Montana State University
What makes for a good rewards program?
One should consider it from both the consumers’ and the brands’ perspectives.
From the brands’ perspective, the most important element in co-branding is that it must be of equal value to each participant. That is, an airline and a credit card company or bank must derive equal benefits from the relationship. For airline credit cards, the card supplier benefits from income it receives in the form of service charges levied on the vendor where the consumer uses the credit card, interest assessments added to a statement when the user doesn’t pay the card in full each month, as well as fees it charges to the consumer to use the card on an annual basis. For the airlines, they benefit from the fact that most people will purchase an additional ticket or tickets when they travel, thus increasing the carrier’s income for the flight, as well as fees for items such as extra bags being checked or seat upgrades that traveler chooses.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.
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